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Dec 17, 2012

The losers' blues

As Casey Stengel remarked: "Without losers, where would the winners be?" Joaquin Caparros, Mallorca's manager, might well have reflected on that notion after his team were beaten 1-0 by his former club Athletic Bilbao in the Iberostar. The goal, inevitably, was scored by Aritz Aduriz, the player Caparros sold to Mallorca from Athletic in 2008.

As they say, sometimes it's difficult to write a better script, especially given the fact that Mallorca still owe Athletic money for that transfer and it was also Aduriz's 100th game for the Bilbainos.

Mallorca have now gone 11 league games without a win (two points from 33), plus three cup matches either drawn or lost. Fourteen games without a win is quite a feat, and the run had Caparros tossing out the quotes at Friday's press conference - most of which came under the "I get knocked down, but I get up again" umbrella.

Perhaps the manager's only mistake so far (in terms of his declarations) has been to personalise the issue, as though he's the only one suffering. The players, one assumes, are hardly having a ball. Back in September, when they last tasted victory (a 2-0 home win over Valencia), they moved into second place in the table. Now they're third from bottom.

Their victorious opponents on Saturday night haven't been having it very easy either of late, having been knocked out of the King's Cup by nearby Eibar, a tiny team from Segunda B, consisting largely of Athletic and Real Sociedad rejects, in midweek.

The problems with Fernando Llorente are well documented, but there are those who say a factor in his sudden lack of feeling for the club that nurtured him was the signing of Aduriz by Marcelo Bielsa in summer.

Llorente felt, apparently, that the signing showed an implicit lack of confidence in him, given that Aduriz is a very similar player. It was unlikely that they were going to line up together - and thus it has proved, but not quite in the way people were expecting.

It was Aduriz's tenth goal of the season and, curiously, the third time this season that he has scored against one of his former teams.

He got one against Valladolid, for whom he scored 22 in 52 appearances, and a brace against Valencia, his last team before rejoining Athletic. He's not actually from Bilbao and is another product of the Antiguoko youth team from San Sebastian, from where he was cruelly stolen at the age of 17 because the club was, at that time, affiliated to Athletic.

Xabi Alonso, with whom he played at Antiguoko, almost went the same way but was prevented from signing for Bilbao by his father and ex-Barcelona player Periko Alonso.

I digress, but thought it worth a mention. We were actually talking about losers. In very crude terms, the Spanish don't like them. They don't even like to talk about them, as though they might also become losers by association.

It's significant that, although the country is in a serious double-dip recession and has already required EU funds to bail it out, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared this "a triumph". As a non-Spaniard, I'm still trying to work that one out.

The only time the loser word (in this case the verb) is mentioned in popular Spanish culture is in the famous Betis war-cry, Viva er Betis manque pierda! (Long live Betis, even if they lose!).

The idea that losing doesn't necessarily matter, or that you can actually learn something from it, is anathema to the average Spaniard. They neither understand nor tolerate the idea, and even Betis' little one-liner is more of a nod to the blind faith of their supporters than a philosophical treatise on the virtues of defeat.

Maybe this is why Marcelo Bielsa doesn't quite fit in. After the game in Mallorca, he admitted that Athletic had been lucky and hadn't really deserved to win - a rare comment in the macho, strutting world of La Liga, where real men never show weakness.

Bielsa, you got the feeling, was also showing some sympathy to the man he supplanted at Bilbao, not because the supporters wanted him to leave (they liked Caparros) but because a change in presidency brought about his departure. Now the defeat on Saturday threatens the position of Caparros' at Mallorca although, truth be told, they probably can't afford to sack him. Just as well, since the irony of being handed your cards after losing to your former team would be extra tough to take.

It's difficult to dislike Caparros, even though he has his detractors. He's managed more than 700 games in Spain, many of them in the grubby ambience of the lower leagues. He's rarely been given the luxury of a big budget and, although he is accused in certain circles of being a 'kick 'em first and play football after' sort of manager, his perennial employability seems to suggest otherwise.

You could also argue that the teams he built at Sevilla and Bilbao were the same ones that enjoyed success under Juande Ramos and Bielsa respectively, and that Caparros was never allowed to stick around to take the plaudits.

Why do seemingly decent teams get into these positions? What happens to cause such a run? As Peter Reid said in 1996, about Sunderland: "We all know that if you stand still you go backwards."

Mallorca have little or no money to spend and sold nine players in summer, two of whom, Chori Castro and Ivan Ramis, were probably their best. It was still looking OK until the late September slump from which they have still not emerged.

They were unlucky against Bilbao, but all the typical things that happen to you when you're down happened to them - conceding to an ex-player, coinciding with your opponents' goalkeeper's best day of the year (stand up Gorka Iraizoz), missing a couple of sitters (sit down Victor Casadesus) and generally suffering the slings and arrows of misfortune. "You make your own luck," said Bill Shankly. Do you make your own bad luck? Good question.

But something does happen when you fail to win over a long period. Most people who have played football have been there - when you start to see any negative sign as a tragedy, any goal conceded as inevitable. Defeat becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and you just can't seem to see any way of changing the dynamic. Of course, it usually does change if you've got a half-decent team (which Mallorca have) and a reasonable team spirit, and it often changes when you least expect it - you get a bit of luck, or everything suddenly clicks, and then you often can't stop winning.

In a prophetic sense, Bilbao's worrying dynamic, the internal troubles at the club and the rare divisions among their supporters over Llorente-gate, would seem to threaten their season more than this bafflingly long winless run of Mallorca's.

And next week is crucial, as we shall see. No team wants to take the Christmas break on a lengthy run of defeats. The turron just won't taste the same, and it makes it even tougher to start up again in the New Year. Mallorca go to Betis next Saturday with an ex-Sevillista as visiting manager, and Betis fans would like nothing more than to see Caparros and his team hit rock-bottom. There's nothing like a schadenfreude Christmas for a truly committed Betico.

An odious comparison with all this would be to look at the other interesting game at the weekend - the clash of the new titans (well, one of them anyway) between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

Barcelona are demonstrating the inverse law to the losers' - that they who always win will continue to do so until they play Real Madrid' - which was more or less the case for Atletico, too.

Barca's record is just ridiculous now, their 46 points from a possible 48 prompting Diego Simeone to state that it was una liga aburrida (a boring league). Well I wouldn't say that, exactly.

It's up to someone (and Atletico have certainly had a go) to stand up to Barcelona and knock them off the spin of their winning axis.

Radamel Falcao's 30th minute goal at the Camp Nou looked to be doing just that, but parity was quickly restored by Adriano with a fantastic goal five minutes later, and then Leo Messi chipped in with his usual couple after Sergio Busquets had given them the lead on the stroke of half-time. Messi's double (his 12th of the season) took him to 193 league goals for Barcelona, beating the previous record held since 1955 by Cesar Rodriguez, who took 16 seasons to score his.

Would a single defeat be enough to disturb Barcelona's giddy dynamic and give the rest of the league some hope? They now stand nine points clear of Atletico and 13 clear of Real Madrid, who more or less blew their already slim chance of catching up by drawing 2-2 at home to lowly Espanyol.

The Catalan team have now drawn their last three matches, all under new manager Javi Aguirre, and prove the point that, once you stop the bleeding, the scar can quickly disappear. Their point from the Bernabeu will add to their growing morale and set them up for beating fellow strugglers Deportivo next weekend. Do that and they'll be out of the bottom three and wondering why they were ever in a downward spiral.

As Stuart Pearce said in 1992, on recovering from a long injury: "I can finally see the carrot at the end of the tunnel."

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